Review of Classified, by Traci Sorell, illustrations by Natasha Donovan

Classified

The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer

by Traci Sorell
illustrations by Natasha Donovan

Millbrook Press, 2021. 32 pages.
Review written January 5, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Mathical Book Prize Honor Book, Grades 3-5
2022 American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor Book, Picture Books

I’m so happy about a recent burst of picture book biographies of distinguished women mathematicians and engineers! They would have inspired me as a child, and they inspire me as an adult.

This book tells the story of Mary Golda Ross, a member of the Cherokee nation, who excelled in math, even though she was surrounded by boys in her classes. The book portrays her as always learning. She became a teacher after graduating from college, but during World War II got a job working on fighter jets for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. That job led her to take engineering classes at a local university to become Lockheed’s first female engineer. After the war, she worked in a classified group developing space travel and satellites.

I like the way Cherokee values are introduced at the beginning and throughout the text we’re told how she demonstrated them: “gaining skills in all areas of life, working cooperatively with others, remaining humble when others recognize your talents, and helping ensure equal education and opportunity for all.”

A whole spread at the end is devoted to Mary’s work helping others not have to face the barriers she did:

Although her work was classified, Mary still had much to share. She never stopped recruiting American Indians and young women to study math and science and helping support them to become engineers.

Mary’s work and her legacy of service have helped many others become trailblazers, too.

I learned in the timeline at the back that she helped found the Los Angeles section of the Society of Women Engineers and later a scholarship was established in her name.

A lovely book about a remarkable woman I’m glad to now know about.

tracisorell.com
natashadonovan.com

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Review of Buzzing with Questions, by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

Buzzing with Questions

The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner

by Janice N. Harrington
illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

Calkins Creek (Highlights), 2019. 48 pages.
Review written August 27, 2020, from a library book

Buzzing with Questions is a picture book biography about African American scientist Charles Henry Turner, who was born in 1867 in Ohio, when it was unusual for an African American to be a scientist. I like the way the author portrays him from boyhood as a kid with lots of questions.

Charles Henry Turner asked so many questions that his teacher urged him to “go and find out.”

And Charles did.

What I really thought was wonderful about this biography was that it described the creative experiments Charles did with insects. He put spiders in different environments to see if their web construction changed. For multiple times, he knocked down a spider’s web made in one place, and eventually the spider gave up and moved, thus showing that it could learn and adapt.

He performed many experiments to find how ants find their way back to their nests. He showed that bees have a sense of time by putting out jam for them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner – but then changing it to only breakfast. Then he did more experiments to determine that bees can see color. He taught cockroaches to find their way through a maze, and later watched caterpillars find their way in a vertical maze.

I like the way this book talks about a scientist who worked hard to answer questions by doing experiments – and tells kids enough about the experiments to capture their imagination. Science is about finding out – and Charles Henry Turner’s life illustrates doing exactly that.

janiceharrington.com
theodore3.com
calkinscreekbooks.com

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Review of Just Like Beverly, by Vicki Conrad, illustrated by David Hohn

Just Like Beverly

A Biography of Beverly Cleary

by Vicki Conrad
illustrated by David Hohn

Little Bigfoot (Sasquatch Books), 2019. 52 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a delightful picture book biography of Beverly Cleary. I’ve read her own story of her life, and this book does a great job of pulling out details that would be interesting to children.

I love the way the illustrator makes Beverly look very much like Ramona.

The book focuses on Beverly’s childhood. She struggled with reading, because she had smallpox while the other children in her class were learning to read. But then a wonderful teacher came along and helped Beverly catch up, and she discovered the joy of reading. Later teachers encouraged her in her writing ability.

Beverly studied to become a children’s librarian, and eventually worked to write stories especially for the boys who came into her library. They wanted stories about “kids like us” – exactly what Beverly had wanted when she was their age. The book points out how she used her own childhood experiences in her books.

There are eight pages of back matter, where I found a listing of some of her accomplishments and honors, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. National Drop Everything and Read Day was established in her honor on her ninetieth birthday, and there’s a Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. Beverly Cleary is still alive, though the book wisely doesn’t make much of this fact, and simply mentions that she celebrated her hundredth birthday on April 12, 2016. ***Note: Beverly Cleary has died since I wrote this review. She lived to be 104. I think I wrote this review in 2019 and decided to finally just post it!

This book is a wonderful tribute to a great author, written at the level of children ready for her books.

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sasquatchbooks.com

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Review of The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin

The Genius Under the Table

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Eugene Yelchin

Candlewick Press, 2021. 201 pages.
Review written December 2, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Capitol Choices selection
2022 Sidney Taylor Honor Book

Eugene Yelchin tells us his story of growing up in Leningrad under the Soviet regime. The characters in his story are larger than life, whom we meet on the first page, loudly complaining about American tourists cutting in front of them in the line to get into Lenin’s mausoleum.

Yevgeny was only six years old in that incident and was somewhat overwhelmed by seeing Lenin’s mummy. Their family lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment and the only place for Yevgeny to sleep was under his grandma’s big table. He liked the private space under the table, and used the bottom of the table to draw pictures.

His mother worked for the Vaganova Ballet Academy, and was obsessed with Mikhail Barishnikov, the academy’s most famous graduate. This obsession gets woven through the book, as his mother wishes Yevgeny had talent like Misha. And their family’s discussion of the likelihood of him defecting gets their own building’s spy appointed to accompany him on his trip to Canada.

Yevgeny’s big brother Victor has talent – he’s a champion figure skater. But what can Yevgeny do? He fakes interest in ballet to please his mother, but that’s not going to work out very well.

Then propaganda starts coming on the radio and even among their neighbors against Jews. Eugene’s child’s perspective of all these events is both funny and poignant. And all of it is illustrated with his drawings – which he tried to reproduce from what he drew under his grandma’s table.

The book ends rather abruptly, after a very sad event. He tries to make it hopeful, and I know he ended up leaving Soviet Russia, but I wish the book had given a hint of how he got there.

Overall, this book is packed with humor and insight. A fun look for kids at a different world – behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

candlewick.com

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Review of Gone to the Woods, by Gary Paulsen

Gone to the Woods

Surviving a Lost Childhood

by Gary Paulsen

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2021. 357 pages.
Review written January 13, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Capitol Choices Selection

Oh wow. This book is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The illustrious children’s author Gary Paulsen writes about his childhood, during which he didn’t get to be a child very much of the time. This book came out not long before his death in 2021. I love the part at the back of the book when he describes himself deciding to write this book.

No longer a boy, he lived and filled the years and saw thousands of hills and oceans and forests and mountains and cities and some ugliness and much more beauty and people, God, all the people until finally, at last he came of an age, an old age, a still older age.

Eighty years.

Eighty glorious years absolutely packed with life.

And one day, living in a shack in the New Mexico mountains, he looked in an old box of things from his life, from moving, and saw one of the old blue Scripto notebooks that had somehow followed him in his life. And he picked up the notebook and opened it and found it was the story of the deer killed by hunters that he had written for the librarian.

But more, still more, there were empty pages after the story. Discolored, but he could still see the lines, the beautiful lines that still, after all these years, called to him, dared him, and he sat down and found a pencil and thought:

What the hell.

Might as well write something down.

My library has put this book in juvenile nonfiction, and although I don’t dispute that, I’m going to file this review with teen nonfiction. Although Gary Paulsen writes mainly about his childhood, he finishes when he enlists as a soldier at seventeen, and he saw some horribly difficult things along the way. Things like horribly wounded soldiers when he traveled on a train alone at age five, and later women and children eaten by sharks as he watched on a transport ship, and “night people” obliterated by machine gun fire when they tried to climb the fence around the American military compound in Manila.

So yes, this book has some horrible and hard things, but so much of it is tender and beautiful. Almost half the book is at the beginning when “the boy” at five years old was suddenly sent to his aunt and uncle who lived in an isolated farm (not even a phone line) in the North woods. There he learned to hunt for mushrooms, milk cows, fish, camp in the woods, and so much more. This part just bursts with love and awe for the beauty around him.

But then his mother showed up and they traveled to his father, stationed in Manila. Things got much harder and now instead of learning woodcraft, he learned street smarts. Back in the United States, living a life of his own with his drunk parents not paying any attention, my heart was captured and then wrung out with the story of how a librarian won his trust. And after she gave him the first whole books he ever read on his own, she presented him with a notebook and pencil and suggested that he write down his own stories and the mind pictures that came up as he read.

And so the seeds were planted for the boy to become a beloved children’s author.

I highly recommend this book for anyone from young teens to adults. I promise your heart will be touched. And I’m so happy to know what Gary Paulsen thought about his life before he died. His years were absolutely packed with life.

GaryPaulsenAuthor.com
mackids.com

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Review of Maryam’s Magic, by Megan Reid, illustrations by Aaliya Jaleel

Maryam’s Magic

The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani

by Megan Reid
illustrations by Aaliya Jaleel

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2021. 36 pages.
Review written December 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Many years ago, having just graduated from college, I went to grad school in the field of mathematics at UCLA. Out of 120 people beginning math grad students there that year, only 5 of us were women. So in 2014, when Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman (and the first Iranian) to win the Fields Medal — the top prize in mathematics — I was delighted.

And here’s a picture book biography of this groundbreaking woman! Another thing to be delighted about. Young children can learn that brilliant mathematicians can be female.

The book tells how Maryam thought she didn’t like math as a child, but wanted to be a writer and an artist. Then she discovered geometry — and the author of this picture book says she took a storytelling artists’ approach to doing math.

It’s always a challenge to represent the work of mathematicians in a picture book biography. I like the loopy artwork the illustrator chose, tying in with the author’s explanation of Maryam’s process:

When it was hard to solve a difficult equation, Maryam covered her house’s floor with big sheets of paper and knelt to trace them with loops and lines, just as she had when she was young.

By now, Maryam was married with a child of her own. She drew so much that sometimes her daughter, Anahita, would tell people proudly that her mommy was a painter.

One of Maryam’s theorems was called “the magic wand theorem.” Here’s the explanation of that theorem:

She explained it using the image of a pool table, with balls that zigged and zagged forever. If you covered the balls in paint, how long would it take for their scattered paths to color the table completely?

Maryam’s magic wand math helped people all over the world. Astronauts could plot safer courses for their rocket ships. Meteorologists could predict weather patterns with more speed and accuracy. Doctors could understand how dangerous diseases grew and spread.

Sadly, Maryam died of breast cancer three years after winning the Fields Medal. This book beautifully explains her lasting legacy in a way children can understand.

meganreid.co
aaliyamj.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Run, Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell

Run
Book One

written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by L. Fury with Nate Powell

Abrams Comic Arts, 2021. 154 pages.
Review written November 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Run, Book One continues the story told in the award-winning series March, about John Lewis’s experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, this one beginning after the Voting Rights Act was signed. John Lewis got to see and approve of almost all the pages in this book before his death. I hope that the collaborators did enough work with him to continue the story, and I’m optimistic about that since they’re still calling it Book One.

We see lots of backlash against what they had accomplished. The book opens with members of the Ku Klux Klan on the march. There’s also conflict in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization for which John Lewis served as chairman for years – until dissent got him removed. The whole principle of nonviolence was being challenged.

A note at the back makes me appreciate how much historical research went into getting the detailed images in this book exactly right. They not only researched things like which models of cars were made that year, but also which cars people in any given neighborhood would drive. There are also short biographies at the back of people who show up in the book, and that section goes on for twelve pages. There’s so much detail and so much to learn in this book.

I thought it was interesting that the Black Panther party produced small comic books “explaining to new voters how they could vote for the new party, as well as the responsibilities and powers of the different elected positions they’d be voting for.” So this graphic novel comes from a long and fine tradition.

I am so thankful to the team of “Good Trouble Productions” for making sure that John Lewis’s voice can still be heard.

abramscomicarts.com

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Review of What Linnaeus Saw, by Karen Magnuson Beil

What Linnaeus Saw

A Scientist’s Quest to Name Every Living Thing

by Karen Magnuson Beil

Norton Young Readers, 2019. 256 pages.
Review written January 14, 2020, from a library book.

This book is a middle school and up biography of Carl Linnaeus, who founded the science of taxonomy by coming up with a system to classify and name all creatures on earth. He even thought at the time that he could complete this task. But in his attempt, he furthered scientific progress tremendously by giving scientists all over the world a way to know they were talking about the same animals.

Carl Linnaeus was born in 1707 in Sweden. His parents badly wanted him to be a pastor, but he wasn’t suited for that at all. He headed into medicine, much to their disappointment – being a medical doctor wasn’t a respected profession at that time. But it was a profession suited for someone obsessed with botany, the study of plants. At those times, doctors made their own medicines. His study of plants and his methodical nature ended up changing the world.

Part of what’s so interesting about this story is how differently the world was seen in those days. Something that earned Linnaeus fame was determining that the Seven-Headed Hydra of Hamburg was a fake. I love that it took a scientist to figure that out!

The book is full of illustrations, and many of them are reproductions from Linnaeus’s notebooks. There are sidebars with interesting notes, and the story of his life is told in an engaging way. This is an interesting story about someone I never before realized was so important.

nortonyoungreaders.com

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Review of Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Friends Forever

by Shannon Hale
artwork by LeUyen Pham
color by Hilary Sycamore and LeUyen Pham

First Second, 2021. 300 pages.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Friends Forever is the third in Shannon Hale’s graphic novel trilogy of memoirs about middle school. This one covers eighth grade.

The things Shannon faces in eighth grade aren’t surprising: issues with friends, family, boys, her own looks, popularity, how people see her, and what is she good at. But since these are things most eighth graders have to deal with – it’s great to have a story out there in an accessible graphic novel form of a kid facing those things.

I’m not sure I’d want to revisit the angst of eighth grade to write a book about it. Shannon Hale has done this in an encouraging and uplifting way, and kids today will benefit.

And don’t think this is only a problem novel. It’s also an entertaining true story about the ups and downs of middle school – but she doesn’t neglect the upside. This is a fun and quick read about one particular eighth grade kid who indeed grew up to be a famous author.

shannonhale.com
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Review of Before They Were Artists, by Elizabeth Haidle

Before They Were Artists

Famous Illustrators as Kids

by Elizabeth Haidle

Etch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 64 pages.
Review written July 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a picture-book-sized nonfiction book for children in graphic novel format telling about the childhoods of six distinguished illustrators.

I would have never thought to put these particular illustrators together in a book, and I love the variety of backgrounds they represent. We’ve got:

Wanda Gág, who wrote Millions of Cats, born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are, born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York.
Tove Jansson, who wrote Finn Family Moomintroll, born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland.
Jerry Pinkney, who wrote The Lion and the Mouse, born in 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Yuyi Morales, who wrote Just a Minute, born in 1968 in Xalapa, Mexico.
Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, born in 1941 in Tokyo, Japan.

Each illustrator gets a title spread with one book featured (the one I listed above), a picture of the illustrator as a child in the landscape of their own books, with a quotation coming from a speech bubble. There’s a time line across the bottom with notable events in their lives, including other books they’ve written. Then they each get six to eight more pages with panels in graphic novel format telling about their childhoods, how they got started in art, and their many accomplishments.

This book is delightful to look at and presents lots of information in an entertaining way. It’s sure to inspire other young artists or at least get them thinking about what their love for art could lead to.

There’s a spread at the front with the title “What makes an illustrator?” It talks about how they had many different backgrounds, but they loved to draw.

In all cases, inspiration from someone else helped pave the way: another artist, animator, cartoonist, or painter whose books, films, or paintings moved hearts and imprinted themselves on minds. These heroes and mentors made a path of possibility to walk down.

May the stories in this book inspire other artists in turn.

hmhbooks.com

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